BY DARYL FISHER — NEWS-LEDGER, FEB 1, 2012 –
EDITOR’S NOTE: Daryl’s column, ‘My Back Pages,’ appears weekly in the print edition of the News-Ledger. We hope you will consider subscribing to see it regularly.
There appears to be a really nasty winter flu bug going around and most of my family and friends seem to have caught it. It starts off with a fever and cough, and although the fever goes away after a few days, the coughing seems to last forever. As I write this, I’m starting my second week of hacking all over everyone, and my youngest son recently informed me that I need to go see a doctor.
“You know,” my son warned me, “people are getting pneumonia from this thing.”
“Did I ever tell you my pneumonia story?” I asked my son.
“Do you want to hear it?”
“Well,” I continued anyway, “it was early February in 1969, and it was supposedly one of the coldest winters ever recorded up in the Pacific Northwest, and there I was, in Fort Lewis, Washington, trying to live through my first day of Army basic training. A decrepit old military bus had unceremoniously dropped me and about 40 other inductees off in the middle of the frozen night and some crazed sergeant wearing a Smokey the Bear hat pulled all the way down over his eyebrows seemed determined to keep screaming at us until dawn. A wet, blowing snow kept falling and my California attire – short-sleeved shirt, cords, tennis shoes and a windbreaker — simply wasn’t keeping any of my important body parts warm. The chill factor had to be way below zero and having spent my whole life in West Sacramento, I had simply never experienced being that cold and miserable before. I mean, my hands and feet felt like they were frozen, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my teeth to stop chattering.”
“No, that came about five weeks later,” I explained. “For the first month or so, everyone was actually just trying not to catch spinal meningitis.”
“Spinal meningitis?” asked my son, his face showing his first apparent interest in my little story.
“Yeah, we had an outbreak of it in our barracks just weeks after I arrived – up on the second floor where about 50 guys lived — and three guys caught it, and one of them died from it. It’s really nasty stuff and is very contagious, so all of us on the first floor were sure hoping it didn’t make its way down to us. And one of the things they did to keep the meningitis from spreading was to keep all the barracks windows wide open, day and night, no matter how bitterly cold the weather was outside.”
“So, that’s how you caught pneumonia?” asked my son, still hoping to cut to the chase.
“I guess that could have been part of it,” I said, “but they always had us running around outside in that awful weather, doing endless physical fitness drills and marching from one place to another, not to mention the long hikes and overnight camp-outs in drafty pup tents. Anyway, one way or another, I ended up sick as a dog and tried for as long as I could not to go on sick call, because the platoon sergeant hated it when any of the recruits he was responsible for tried to use illness as an excuse to get out of their training.”
“And when you finally went on sick call, they told you that you had pneumonia?”
“No, I didn’t learn about that until after they had admitted me to the base hospital with a 104 degree temperature and this really mean nurse kept throwing me into cold showers. I finally told her, `Hey, if you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to catch pneumonia’, to which she replied, `You already have pneumonia!’ And she was the same nurse who came by a couple of days later, took my temperature, and matter-of-factly said, `You know, if you don’t break that fever by tomorrow, you’re going to die’.”
“Really?” asked my son with disbelief. “She actually said that?”
“Yeah, she wasn’t much into the bedside manner thing. Anyway, back then the only thing the Army seemed to do about pneumonia was cold showers and forcing you to drink lots and lots of this god-awful punch drink – and I’m talking gallons of it every hour. I don’t remember them giving me any medicine, and the only time I saw a doctor was every morning for a few minutes when he would come to the pneumonia ward and quickly check out the chest x-rays we all had to take at the crack of dawn every day. They were placed in big vanilla envelops at the foot of our beds and every time the doctor would check out my chest x-ray, he would just shake his head kind of hopelessly and move on to the next one. But the worst part was that I had been told before I got to the hospital that if I ended up missing a full week of basic training, they would recycle me, and I was sure that would kill me if the pneumonia didn’t.”
“Recycle you? What does that mean?”
“Well,” I explained, “if you missed too much training from being sick, then they would simply recycle you back with the next batch of new recruits and you would have to start all over again with them, which meant re-doing all the hardest parts of basic training, not to mention losing all the friends you had managed to make, and as far as I was concerned, I was simply not going to let that happen, no matter how sick I was!”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, on my fourth morning there, I overhead the doctor telling the guy next to me who was always bragging about how fast he was getting better that his x-rays were looking great and that if it continued he would probably release him back to his unit the next day. So the next morning, after everyone had taken their x-rays but before the doctor came to look at them, I waited until the coast was clear and then I exchanged my no-doubt still bad x-ray with the new one from the guy who was getting better.”
“You’re kidding? You switched x-rays?”
“That’s right. I had noticed that the doctor never really looked at the names on the x-rays or anything. He just held them up in the light for two seconds and moved on. And when the doctor looked at the new x-ray in my envelope, he seemed a little surprised, but he quickly told me that I would be getting out of the hospital right after lunch. So back to my unit I went as fast as I could, and thankfully it was a Sunday, so I took it easy all that afternoon and night and since most of the training the next week was classroom stuff, I was able to start feeling better by the middle of that week. And best of all, I didn’t get recycled.”
“But what happened to the poor guy who ended up with your x-ray?”
“I don’t have a clue,” I admitted. “He definitely looked shocked, though, when the doctor held up my real x-ray and told him he had taken a turn for the worse, but in the military, they just call guys like that `collateral damage’.”
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